Title: Lolly Willowes
Author: Sylvia Townsend Warner
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
Sometimes, when I am unfamiliar with an author or a book when it is considered to be a “classic,” I look at reviews before reading. Perhaps it would be better to go in without any idea at all about the novel, but I personally prefer to have some idea of the author’s biography and the tone of the book. The first one I found for Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner called it a “sweet, little book.” After actually reading, I wonder how much that description would make the author convulse in her grave in absolute misery of having her creation called sweet and little. Lolly Willowes is many confusing and wonderful things, but sweet it is not.
After her father’s death, Laura Willowes has been transferred along with the furniture to her brother’s house. As a an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is expected to help her brother’s wife with household duties and to help care for the children. The children dub her Lolly, and she is thenceforth called only that name by her family. I suppose this has the makings of being a sweet, little book, but the magical part of it is that Warner completely crushes expectations. Lolly comes to realize that something is not quite right in her life. Like many women who came before her and that would come after, Lolly was doing what was expected of her, but she did not find herself to be particularly fulfilled in that knowledge.
The first part of the book is all over the place. It is filled with exposition and refuses to tell the story in a straight line of time. Past and present, back and forth, the narrative seems to run in circles. In a way, it contributes to the feeling that this book is one big protest against the role of unmarried women in society. It defies traditional story telling methods, instead favoring an approach more like entering one’s consciousness. Ideas come and go in disorganized circles. When Laura finally rebels, going against the wishes of her family, doing what she wants even when they tell her it is not sensible, the writing style begins feeling calmer. The book seems more put-together by the second part.
Warner introduces witchcraft as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Laura is not as concerned about sorcery in regards to men; they seem to have less need of her attention. There is no moment of disbelief, no doubt in the existence of magic. The book embraces the supernatural in an empowering way. Of course Laura should have possession of greater-than-earthly powers. It is only right that she should. She is living in a world where she does not need help and does not need to help others. It is a solitary, but happy, existence.
This novel was written a few years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but it deals with a lot of the same issues. It seems that, in the world of Laura Willowes, the only way for an unmarried woman of a certain age to forge a life of her own is to sell her soul to the devil in order to gain it. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but that is the only option Laura has. Warner poses questions about women’s existences, questions that do not have easy answers, but she attempts in this book to find a point to start talking about the issue. To be honest, I did not enjoy this book much from a literary perspective, but it is interesting from a feminist point-of-view.